“He who changes his words, it is as if he worships idols,” Sanhedrin 92a
A boy who is not Bar Mitzvah is not obligated to keep the mitzvos according to biblical law. We are obligated to educate him, and according to some, he may have a Rabbinic responsibility to fulfill mitzvos himself, but according to the strict law of the Torah, he is not responsible. And yet, according to the Torah, once a young man truly knows what his words mean, he is obligated to fulfill the word of his commitments. Even before the responsibility to keep the rest of the Torah comes the responsibility to keep ones word.
Tosafos[i] is of the opinion that even a goy has the responsibility to keep his word. Now a gentile is not responsible to keep anything in the Torah beyond the seven Noachide laws and several other restrictions. But his is responsible to keep his word!
The Ramban[ii] tells us that when a community gets together to make a decision as a community, they have the ability to create obligations not only upon every member of that community, but even upon their descendants. He give three examples; the national acceptance of the Torah, of the megilla, and of fast days. We are all under and obligation to keep those commitments that our ancestor committed to en masse. It is interesting to note that even before the Torah was given we were bound to our word. After all, should one not have to keep what he promised, what binds us to the Torah? Even before the Torah was given, we had to keep our word.
“He who changes his words, it is as if he worships idols,” says the Gemara.[iii] R. Menachem Meiri[iv] explains that this refers to one who does not keep his word. Idolatry is the most egregious of sins[v]. After all, man was placed on this world in order to worship G-d, to do good, and accomplish as much as he can. It is only possible for one to do that when he knows what is true and what is false, and what is good and bad. Following a false system, with false values and false gods is understandable a cardinal sin. A fellow promising to make it to his Gandma’s birthday party who instead goes to the movies has indeed commited an offense. But can we compare that to idolatry? It is certainly not the kindest thing to do, not does it display integrity – but is it really even close to the worship of idols?
We must explore the nature of a mitzvah. The Rambam[vi] tells us, “Many things were forbidden by the sages as ‘Rabbinically Stealing’ such as gambling… What is gambling? Playing games with wood, stone, bones, or any such substance, and making a deal that whomever wins the game will take home a certain amount of money. Our Rabbis declared that this is theft. Despite the fact that this money is given completely willfully by its owner, because it was taken in a playful and silly manner, it is theft!” This Rambam is hard to understand on the surface – if one is not taking somebody else’s object, how can he be a thief? What on earth does his playful and silly manner have to do with stealing? He may be one who does not fear God, or a number of other sins, but how can we call him a thief? The Chacham Tzvi[vii], in addressing the prohibition of stealing even from a non-Jew explains that there are two purposes to every Mitzvah. On the one had we do not steal because the Torah must protect the fellow with money, and not allow any charlatan to make off with what is his. But another purpose, explains the Chacham Tzvi, is in order than man will not behave in a despicable way. We therefore cannot steal from anyone, because there is something bad that happens to us when we steal! In fact, the Rambam himself makes such a statement in his Pirush Hamishnayos[viii] when he says “Our sages have taught us that it is prohibited to deceive even the gentile… for this develops in man terrible characteristics.” Mitzvos are here to make sure that we do certain actions, but above all that, they are here to change us. Stealing is both about taking money from another person, and taking money for free in an ignoble manner. If one takes money in a silly or uncouth way it is akin to stealing. For stealing is not just about taking something from someone else, it can be about taking something even should that hurt nobody at all in any [legal] sense!
Now we can understand why it is idolatrous to default on ones word. The Torah is talking to a man. It tells that man to do mitzvos. Those mitzvos have their effect on both the man, and his relationship with Hashem. But there must be a man there to talk to. With no integrity, there is no man to talk to, and there I no one to hear the message of the Torah. There can be no worship of Hashem when there is no man. The travesty of idolatry is that man is acting against the entire purpose of creation. Man is here to worship God – one who denies God, or mis-defines Him is a disaster. But equally grave is the sin of one who mis-defines man. If there is no man, there can be no worship of God. The Torah presupposes the existence of a man before it commands anything – it can do no less. Even the gentile must keep his word, and even the underage boy must follow through. Derech Eretz must come before Torah, for Torah cannot change a man and bring him close to God if he is not a man, and without integrity man is not much more than an animal.
[i] Tosafos to Avoda Zara 5b s.v. ‘Minayin.’ Note the shock of R. Akiva Eger in Gilyon Hashas there.
[ii] Mishpat Hacherem (published after the Pirush Haramban to Gittin in Chiddushei Haramban. I am indebted to R. Efraim Kirshenbaum Shlita for making me aware of this source.
[iii] Sanhedrim 92a
[iv] Beis Habichira ad loc.
[v] Sanhedrin 50a “poshet yado biikar adif - denying the existence of God is most severe.”
[vi] Hil. Gezeila Vaveidah 6:7, and
[vii] Shaalos Uteshuvos Chacham Tzvi 26
[viii] Keilim 12:7, in the standard editions this is found, but it is brought out far more clearly in the newer, more accurate, translation of R. Y. Kapach.